Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Alone, With Craft

A Singapore Airlines Boeing 777 First Class Suite

The New Inquiry has just published a new essay of mine, called "Escape Velocity," about two stories that appeared on the Internet over the past couple months: the Boeing 777 made out of manila folders, and Jason E. Harrington's essay about his former job with the TSA and subsequent ascension into an esteemed MFA program. These are both ephemeral, viral-for-a-day stories that involve air travel, and various friends and students alerted me to them when they started making the rounds.

My analysis of Luca Iaconi-Stewart's intricate model airplane was inspired by my adoption of this story in my current class at Loyola, Interpreting the Airport: we discussed this curious story, and talked about what made this plane (and the way it was photographed and displayed on the CNN website) so captivating and strange. My students had such terrific insights and responses to the story, and in class I started writing (with their input) what would become the first part of the essay.

In my other course this semester, Contemporary Nonfiction, I assigned Harrington's essay, in particular for how it enfolds the act of writing (and the desire to be a 'writer') into the broader problem at hand, i.e. the TSA and its attendant travesties involving the full body scanners. My students in that class responded very well to this piece, noting how the author used the occasion of the unpopular government agency and airport security to bolster and boost his own budding writing career; we've been talking a lot in this class about the possibilities, necessities, and limits of self-promotion (especially with social media), and what it means to write nonfiction about a discrete topic while also including the topic of oneself as writer in the writing. So, Harrington's piece gave us a lot to work with.

I respect Harrington's jumping off point, airport-worker-turned-writer. It's somewhat similar to my own trajectory, and I think it's an incredibly important point of critique—notes from the field, as it were. But I also think the essay is a fascinating example of how new media forms of communication are outpacing—and even out-dramatizing—the very subjects and objects which they are ostensibly merely about. Flight isn't so fancy these days.

Take the case of the currently missing Boeing 777, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. It is a terrifying mystery, and a very real situation involving hundreds of travelers and justifiably worried and frustrated relatives and friends. But it's also a situation that has captivated millions of unrelated (one almost wants to say random) Internet users, and has therefore generated countless hits and associated advertising revenue. It has become a phenomenon that goes way beyond navigation technics, commercial aviation, and personal routes of flight. For all of the collective efforts to find the lost plane—people rallying around crowd-sourcing endeavors and adding to hashtag assemblages—there is also a way that all these scattered Internet users around the globe are on their own, alone with the craft of communicating in our late digital age. We like to think that air travel is still about self-contained individual humans flying to solid places for grounded, real experiences; but being alone, with craft, has a lot to do with farther flung modes of work, communication, being, and entertainment, too.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Object Lessons, the backstory

Earlier this winter Ander Monson asked me & Ian to do an editor's post on Object Lessons for the Essay Daily; it's up and you can see it here. And now for further edification, here's even more—the backstory of the series:

A few years ago my editor at what was then Continuum, Haaris Naqvi, and I were eating at a Thai restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island—this was during an ACLA conference hosted by Brown University. I had just presented a paper on David Foster Wallace's use of air travel in The Pale King. Over bowls of steaming curry, Haaris wondered if I’d be interested in proposing a new series of cultural studies books for the press. (My recently published airport book had triggered this idea.) At that time I had been reading lightly if enthusiastically across the burgeoning movement called Object-Oriented Ontology, and teaching some of these texts in my courses at Loyola, and I immediately thought about a series devoted to single objects and the lessons they hold. On the spot I came up with the series title “Object Lessons.” Reaktion has a very nice academic series called objekt—I admired these books, but wanted more of them. Lots more. And I wanted them to be a little shorter, pithier: books you could read on a single cross-country flight, say. I had a vision for the series: an endless list of slim books unified by a striking design, brief titles (one or two words, no subtitles), and the utterly unexpected juxtapositions that would occur between the volumes over time.

I had this hunch that there were plenty of academics who know a lot about single things—whether from long research projects or just from everyday life and non-academic hobbies. But there isn’t really a place for this kind of para-academic writing: a place to write about that one thing that captivates you but which in normal academic writing would get subsumed by vast apparatuses of frameworks, concepts, and theory. So much scholarly writing ends up in forms that are either too expensive for the common reader to access, or too abstruse to understand (much less enjoy) if you are outside of the author’s discipline or field of expertise. Where can an academic write more playfully, in accessible prose, for a wider audience? (There are blogs, sure—but who really wants to read another blog?)

I initially saw Object Lessons as a venue for two types of academics: junior scholars who were working on a traditional monograph but who also had a pet project, maybe some minor topic that got a page-worth of attention in their book, but which could warrant a small book of its own; and more senior scholars who were at that point in their career when they might want to write a smart yet accessible book on a single thing—something they know enough about to come at it from a surprising angle.

From the outset I envisioned the series as having crossover appeal: a venue for public intellectual writing (in the best sense of that phrase). Neither compromising theoretical sophistication nor abandoning lucid and lithe prose, the series would be a place for good smart writing on a wide range of ordinary and concrete topics. Was this unrealistic, idealistic, too neat and tidy a vision? Probably so.

Nevertheless, I started conjuring this book series, and as part of the initial proposal I asked about a dozen writers and scholars whose work I admired to serve on the Advisory Board—including Ian Bogost, whose wonderful Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing I had just read.

About a year later, Ian came to New Orleans to give a talk from a new book project, and over wine one afternoon we were talking about the book series, and Ian suddenly raised the stakes: what if it weren’t just a book series, but if it had a corollary essay series, published in a high profile venue like The Atlantic? It turned out that Ian had been mulling over a similar series idea, but essay-oriented, rather than geared toward books. But what if we merged these plans? In short, what if it was a series with two outlets, for two (not mutually exclusive) forms of writing?

From that point on, things happened fast. We drafted up a proposal for Ian's contacts at The Atlantic, and Alexis Madrigal and his savvy crew loved the idea of the series. The essays would be run primarily out of their Technology Channel, which gave us a useful constraint and challenge for how to describe what we meant by 'objects'. (You can read some of that proposal's language here.)

As we sat there discussing the series we intermittently rattled off lists of objects, at turns focusing and expanding the potential scope of the series:

bundt cake, cuttlefish, aircraft carriers...vacuum bags, bottle caps, flying buttresses…Blow Pops, slime mold, sawdust, silence...magnesium, bone marrow, bilge pumps...crabgrass, Kleenex, coolant...lodgepole pinecones, dryer lint, dental floss...honey, hurricanes, heliotropes, hatred...morel mushrooms, molasses, landing gear...copper wire, cruise ships, Velcro...tampons, tigers, trademarks, trash...cilium, silt, silence, suitcases...dirt, dioramas, interstellar nebulae...windshield wipers, wonder, inchworm...

While we were developing the proposal for the series, something happened to Continuum: it merged with the publisher Bloomsbury, which ended up working out well for us, as the larger independent publisher offered the series a wider platform and robust marketing. And Haaris got promoted. Haaris is terrific, and helps us move our book proposals through the review and vetting processes at a brisk pace. He's also a champion of top-notch design and overall book quality, which is one of the ulterior motives of the series: to make books that are themselves elegant objects, pleasant to hold and to read.

We launched the series in June 2013, and you can read the rest at the Essay Daily...

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Introducing Scott Shershow

poster by Nancy Bernardo*

Scott Shershow is a great friend and was a fantastic mentor of mine at UC Davis; he directed my dissertation on airports in American literature and culture. Scott visited New Orleans a couple years ago and gave a fascinating talk at Loyola last year on the philosophical debates that undergird laws and ethics around the topics of suicide and the right to die. The book that developed from that talk, Deconstructing Dignity, has just come out, and Scott has a terrific post at the University of Chicago Press's blog on recent episodes where these issues have flared up once again in the news, stirring up a range of tense (and not always consistent) emotions, attitudes, and ideas. This got me thinking back to Scott's talk at Loyola last year, and I realized I might as well put my introduction to Scott here on my blog. The introductions we write for guest speakers often become so much more ephemeral work done by academics—a crumpled page in the recycle bin or a forgotten file in a blue simulacral folder, never to be looked at again. So, here it is:


Professor Shershow’s work ranges across conceptual boundaries with relentless ease, making sophisticated and always surprising connections between political economy, Western philosophy, visual arts, literature, and anthropology—to name a mere few of the fields that his work traverses. 

I’ve been referring to Shershow’s “work,” but what I really should say is that Shershow excels at unworking texts—and not just literary texts, but all sorts of structures and textures that form and inform everyday life.

Whether he is elaborating the most troubling and perplexing implications of torture, describing precisely how a Sarah Silverman line clinches a philosophical knot, unpacking the dense rhetoric of ‘sacrifice’ in post-9/11 discourse, or delineating the conflicting economic schemas that course through the Hollywood blockbuster Titanic—in all these cases, Shershow’s thinking maintains a buoyancy, a rigor, and a flexibility that is always refreshing, and equally challenging. 

Where I am tempted to quote something from the philosopher Jacques Derrida in order to further elaborate Shershow's contributions to contemporary critical theory, I will instead turn to a few lines by Wallace Stevens, from “The Ultimate Poem is Abstract”—these lines, I believe, evoke the spirit of Scott Shershow’s unique and inspiring style of inquiry, unworked:

If the day writhes, it is not with revelations.
One goes on asking questions. That, then, is one
Of the categories. So said, this placid space

Is changed. It is not so blue as we thought. To be blue,
There must be no questions. It is an intellect
Of windings round and dodges to and fro,

Writhings in wrong obliques and distances,
Not an intellect in which we are fleet…

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Done with Deconstructing Brad Pitt

evolution of the cover

Last weekend I delivered the final manuscript of Deconstructing Brad Pitt. It will be on bookshelves this coming September.

This book was incredibly stressful to put together, but highly rewarding in the end. It was, to borrow Brad Pitt's own word applied in various contexts, a "journey." (Most books are, but this one palpably so.)

From the original call for papers, some of the chapters never materialized; and some of those that did show up needed serious revisions that then never materialized. One contributor died. Another one went crazy (read the book for the rest of that story). My own chapter kept evading me and shifting topics as it moved—finally I nailed it down and had a lot of fun with it, but it's pretty weird. There were other quirks and oddities not suitable for discussion on a blog.

Originally I intended to edit the collection myself, and I went at it alone for about a year—but it became overwhelming. The chapters seemed at turns too personal or too detached. Editing the chapters was like trying to get into other people's heads, and specifically that part of a head that is obsessed with someone else. (The experience was reminiscent of Being John Malkovich.) Celebrity studies is a hard thing to get right: it is all too easy to be cooly dismissive, or to take things way too seriously. It was difficult to balance attachments to Brad Pitt (as an artist, as an icon, as a person) with the more exterior conceptual framework, such that the book would have critical value (whatever that means).

My friend and co-editor Robert Bennett really saved the book. Last summer I invited him to join me on this distinguished endeavor, and luckily for me he accepted. Robert came on the scene with fresh energy and ideas for how to think about the book and arrange its contents. The book has this sidelong relationship to Jacques Derrida—thus the "deconstructing" in the title—and we were trying to play throughout with some of the more approachable ideas implied by his quasi-philosophy. But we're not trying to suggest that Pitt is uniquely deconstructive. Rather, it is simply a useful way to think about all sorts of celebrities, how they appear and what sort of cultural work they do, how they communicate. I like to imagine an ongoing series of books applying this title-word and accompanying strategy: Deconstructing Philip Seymour Hoffman, etc. I may be the scourge of the humanities, but it seems to me that if we can't use our ideas to talk about the shimmering and vibrant world around us—then what are we doing? And the thing about deconstruction is that it is a positive term. It's generous. It gives.

For a project that started out as a joke over ten years ago, and which may strike some as ludicrous, this book turns out to have surprisingly good essays in it concerning a range of issues connected (more or less directly) to the name Brad Pitt. It's a book that takes Brad Pitt seriously, but which is also playful. It's personal, and yet aware of itself. I'm really happy with how the book turned out, and very glad that it is done.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Introducing Tim Morton

The title of this blog post is silly; Tim Morton needs no introduction at this time. But I had to introduce him last night, before his talk at Loyola, and writing an introduction for Tim was a nice walk down memory lane—so I'm posting it here for general reading:

I first met Timothy Morton in 2003, when I was starting out as a PhD student at the University of California, Davis.

Tim had just been hired at Davis, to replace the famous poet and acclaimed nature writer Gary Snyder, who was retiring around that time. These were big shoes to fill, but we heard enticing rumors of Professor Morto's edgy and daring style of eco-criticism, and we had our hopes set high.

That first year of grad school, I took one of Tim's seminars on environmental aesthetics, and I'll always remember one day when Tim came in, plugged his laptop into the room's loudspeakers, and broadcast the computer as it robotically and awkwardly read his notes aloud for the day's discussion. Tim sat there silent and grinning; we sat there uncertain, shifting and uncomfortable—which somehow exactly proved his point that day. (We were discussing Frankenstein.) 

A few years later I worked up the nerve to ask Tim if he would be on my dissertation committee; I was writing about airports in literature from a curious ecological angle. Tim told me to meet him at his office the next day.

I met Tim at his office the next afternoon, and he suggested we go get coffee.

Twenty minutes later, we were sitting on a bench in the quad, sipping coffee and looking out at the cork oaks and streams of bicyclists. I launched into some elaborate theories of postmodern space, dislocated regionalism, and air travel's place in all this. I had brought a few pages of typed questions and notes, which I handed to him at some point. Tim scanned the pages as I rambled on for several minutes.

Then I stopped, completely out of steam. I needed guidance—that's why I was a graduate student, after all.

Tim paused, looked back at my pages, then around the quad…and then he asked me:

"Have you ever really tasted an avocado?" 

We spent the next 45 minutes talking about avocados—and this conversation totally changed how I thought about airports.

That pretty much sums up what it's like to work with Tim: he catches you off guard, in exactly the right way. 

One of the most important things I learned from Tim was about teaching, and it proves more true and effective each year that I teach college courses. 

This was in a graduate seminar on pedagogy; we were talking about poetry, and all the ways you could teach rhyme and meter, explain structure and form—but at one point Tim broke through all the jargon and said, "You know what? Just dare to be dumb." 

This was shocking, but so true: between the students and the texts in front of us all, we'd figure it out. It's all there. All we had to do was dare to ask simple questions, without having already made up our minds. Dare to read things slowly—decelerate! was one of Tim's mantras in that class. 

The longer I teach, and the dumber and dumber I feel each year standing in front of savvy new college students, I take more and more solace in Tim's point. Daring to be dumb means letting raw intelligence emerge in front of me, each new year, in every class.

Tim's writings on ecology, aesthetics, literature, and philosophy are audacious and sincere, trenchant and playful. His work has influenced myriad fields, and for good reason. It will rock your world, if you're open to it. 

Saturday, January 18, 2014

My Grandfather's Tower

I wrote a bit about my grandparents' Frank Lloyd Wright home once before, a few years ago. Well today I was wandering around the Internet looking for something when I happened to stumble on a familiar image; I clicked and discovered a 2012 blog post about my grandparents' house. It is merely a pleasant architectural-historical review of sorts, but I was particularly pleased to see that this post mentioned my grandfather's tower, and included a picture of it:

This oddity of an edifice had nothing whatsoever to do with Frank Lloyd Wright, but instead was conjured by my grandfather after he saw the Space Needle at the 1962 Seattle World's Fair. Upon returning to Michigan he had this 40-foot dodecagonal structure built next to their swimming pool, in the back of the house. The tower was where my grandfather went to think and imagine. In various coffee-table books about Frank Lloyd Wright architecture, you can see aerial photographs of my grandparents' house, and usually those pictures were taken from the tower.

The tower was also a favorite place for me, my siblings, and my cousins to play: the spiral staircase leading up to the trapdoor in the floor (a trapdoor!) always felt like it went inconceivably up and up and up, and it got darker and darker until pitch black—then you'd bump the door hatch and push it up on its hinge, and sunlight light would come pouring down the stairs. Once up there, though, there really wasn't much to do. Usually it would end in a wild race back down the stairs; whoever was last and closed the trapdoor behind them would be enveloped suddenly in blackness.

I spent several weekends in college camped out in the tower, working on papers. (My grandparents lived about an hour and a half from the small liberal arts college I went to.) I remember staring out at the surrounding woods as I worked on a paper about the role of forests in a few different Shakespeare plays. And then there was another paper about Wallace Stevens I wrote there; I actually remember reading Helen Vendler's Words Chosen out of Desire up in that tower.

Here is an older picture of the tower, taken in 1972; look at how the trees have grown:

Once my grandfather told me a story about a time he was in the tower and he looked out and saw an enormous flock of birds in the distance: one of those dense undulating masses of blackbirds or starlings. The birds were getting closer, and he realized that the vast skein was at the exact altitude of the tower; he dropped to the floor in fear that they would crash through the windows. But looking up from the floor, he watched as the innumerable birds soared around and past the tower, reassembling in tight formation on the other side. Talk about one unique way of looking at some blackbirds.

After my grandfather died, I found in a small wood box some of the cufflinks that he had made of the tower:

These are my favorite cufflinks to wear, even though they are a little pointy and weird. I gave a pair to Ian Bogost when I first met him, as a token of thanks for endorsing my book about airports. I had just read Alien Phenomenology, and for some reason I thought Ian would appreciate the story of my quirky grandfather, for whom it wasn't enough to have a Frank Lloyd Wright home—he needed a personal tower next to the house, and then needed to commemorate the tower with personalized cufflinks! The back of each cufflink reads:


Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Object Lessons at MLA

If you are at MLA in Chicago this week, stop by the Bloomsbury tables (136 & 138) and talk to our editor Haaris Naqvi about Object Lessons. As a bonus, you can pick up this snazzy flyer:

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Finishing Deconstructing Brad Pitt

I am currently working (hustling might be a more accurate term) to assemble the final manuscript for this book, a collection of essays about Brad Pitt. 

The book started out as a joke more than ten years ago in Montana, existed as a sort of academic shaggy dog story during the time I was a PhD student at UC Davis, and then became a real project after I moved to New Orleans. And now it's almost complete. 

The book includes some excellent essays on the expected and unexpected facets of Pitt, both as an actor and as a celebrity. It's been a bewildering process, though, because the book can't possibly encompass—not to mention keep up with—the roles, appearances, and disseminations of Brad Pitt. But that's part of the point...

If everything goes smoothly from here on out, and with a little luck, it will be in airport bookstores a year from now.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

13 Very Short Airport Stories

1. Lucy was scanned by the dynastic x-ray machine, and then she strolled into a simulated cedar grove leading away from the terminal.

2. A cheerleading squad assembled near the baggage carousel, waiting for shiny equipment to arrive in unremarkable duffle bags.

3. Stepping through a red glow, Lars inserted his credit card into the self check-in kiosk, and the computer retrieved his itinerary to LGA. Did Lars want to print his boarding passes?

4. The Starbucks line was long. There were only 9 minutes until Priority Boarding. Li hesitated, looking down the concourse toward gate 64.

5. Georgette knew the way to the Admiral's Club. She knew that there were two more moving walkways until she would see the frosted sliding doors.

6. Lena preferred Lufthansa because it was a good german airline, because the planes had blue tails and there was no better way to fly, really.

7. In the bathroom near the F gates, Paulo couldn't decide whether to use a paper towel after he'd washed his hands, or the Dyson Airblade.

8. Suddenly Robby was elated to discover an unexpected power outlet nestled between the Eames Tandem sling seats; his Samsung Galaxy would be charged for the flight.

9. Elizabeth deftly maneuvered her carry-on bag around the bookshelves and past the magazines, looking for something to read during the two-hour layover.

10. The garbage can at the juncture of the C and D concourses overflowed, and a Smoothie King styrofoam cup clattered to the ground.

11. Charlene loved to scold the passengers who reported their luggage lost. She scolded them hard, shaking her head as she processed each claim, entering information into the computer.

12. Four baggage carts were parked in a snaked line. One cart's vinyl curtain flapped in the jetwash of an Airbus taxiing away from gate E14.

13. The overhead speakers called for a Mr. Spartenbot to pick up a white courtesy phone. But nobody heard the announcement.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

On Nature & Planes in World War Z

Part I

About thirty minutes into World War Z, we find Brad Pitt's Gerry Lane on a military cargo aircraft with Elyes Gabel's Dr. Fassbach, a "virologist from Harvard" who has been tasked with figuring out the cause of (as well as a cure for) the wildly contagious zombie disease spreading over the planet. They are flying to South Korea, on a rumor that the zombie outbreak began there. En route, Fassbach pontificates about the subtlety and craftiness of Nature, musing on how "she loves to play tricks," and "she's a bitch." He even compares Nature to a serial killer. Toward the end of this airborne, spontaneous lecture, Dr. Fassbach gets a maniacal expression on his face, and Brad Pitt looks pensive if also a little disturbed.

This whole time, after all, they are sitting in a U.S. Marine cargo aircraft on a last ditch effort to save the species, and here this young doctor of medicine is philosophizing about Nature—and more, seeming to get a kick out it (talk about a tenured radical). Dr. Fassbach's part in this film is rather hugely built up, only to be cut short in the next scene: he slips on the rain-slicked aircraft ramp and accidentally shoots himself in the head. But his words live on, coming back into the mind of Pitt in a voiceover later, when Gerry Lane is on the verge of solving the problem of the zombie apocalypse.

Is it really a problem, though, if indeed the zombie outbreak is an extension of Nature? The thing about zombies is that they have supposedly broken from the natural order: they are the un-dead, they (non)exist beyond an allegedly 'natural' human timeline of life and death. The zombies in this film click their teeth and sniff the air as if they are hungry, but they really just want to bite people—and only then to turn them into similar creatures. It's not about eating; it's about community, and a kind of asexual and finite reproduction.

Furthermore, they seem to have achieved a state of weird biological equilibrium, the sin qua non of certain ideas of ecology: this humanoid sub-species doesn't need to extract resources, exterminate other species, or build things—they just like to hang out. For when there are no more healthy non-zombie people to bite, the zombies go dormant, simply standing around and jerking occasionally (as we see later in the film). They don't have to work or struggle, they can just chill. Given contemporary culture's everyday wish images of vacation, retirement, off-time, and vegging out—does zombie life really sound so bad?

Nature is a strange problem that lurks throughout this movie. Nature plays a double role, both the background and the foreground, the riddle to solve and the inescapable condition. It is what causes the zombies in the first place (as a virus of some sort); yet it also, according to Dr. Fassbach, holds the keys and clues to the mystery. Nature in World War Z is something to 'catch' in a double sense: as a virus, and as an culprit who causes the virus. The reason they've sent a virologist on the mission is to figure out the disease and come up with a solution, a cure. Nature is figured as dynamic, adaptive, generative of new viruses and forms of life; some of this is threatening to human life, and thus humans push back, to keep the species from changing too much (or too quickly) or becoming extinct (at least not in our lifetime). At the same time, Nature is something to be held in check, perceived and controlled as an external entity.

Yet if Nature is something that at times needs to be recuperated or set in balance (à la those "Take Back America" bumper stickers), then it is precisely the humans who are ill-directed here: they should join the zombies, for the zombies have achieved a stable state within a dynamic system, a state that would seem to be able to exist in perfect harmony with the rest of Nature even within a broader state of flux. Humanoids as an entirely stable population of sloths: it's progress at its apex, satisfaction pretty much guaranteed.*

Except that this is the foil of 'Nature' as a concept. As Nietzsche describes it in Beyond Good & Evil, the desire to live according to Nature is incoherent, or at best tautological, as it sets up an opposition that always immediately collapses.** It's like saying you want to live according to life. Well, how could it be otherwise? Such too this mad mission of a species (humans, i.e., Nature) to rid Nature of something it generated, the zombies (again, Nature).

Part II

The setting of Dr. Fassbach's Nature lesson is hardly coincidental. World War Z is in part, in fact, a startling and savage critique of modern air travel.

Earlier in the film, Gerry Lane's former boss Thierry Umutoni, U.N. Deputy Secretary-General (played by Fana Mokoena), briefs Lane on the situation and mentions offhand, concerning the virus, that "the airlines were the perfect delivery system..."

Later in the film, Gerry Lane barely escapes an overrun Jerusalem, enplaning onto a Belarus Airways wide-body jetliner at the last second before it takes off.

Lane makes it out in the nick of time: from the airplane window on ascent, we see the teeming masses of zombies and the devastation below.

Never mind: everything seems fine on the flight—a little relief, at last. That is, until the plane is making its descent into Cardiff, Wales, and Lane hears/feels some thumping toward the back of the plane. He cautiously strolls down the aisle to check it out.

What I want to seize on here is the total banality of this scene: it is the pinnacle of modern progress, summed up in the interior space of the commercial airliner. But when Lane peeks through the divide that separates Business from Economy Class, he sees an awful sight: there was a zombie stowaway on the plane that finally broke loose from the nether regions of the aircraft, and is wreaking havoc and thus multiplying.

On the one hand, this is a terrifying scenario. On the other hand, though, does it really look all that different from a normal scene of boarding, wherein we jockey for seats, armrests, and carry-on stowage? Incidentally, this whole episode was all the fault of a particular flight attendant: to wit, the crouching beige-clad woman in the mid-foreground, who unknowingly freed the secret sharer from a storage elevator in the rear galley. When she raises her head in preparation to attack Lane, we are presented with one of the exciting face-to-face moments in the film:

Now having worked at an airport for a few years earlier in my life, I am fairly sympathetic to the grueling labor of air travel, and I do not wish to make fun of airline workers. But this sequence seems to me to be a clear jab: is this look so distinct from how we encounter (or at least hyperbolically imagine) irate, snippy flight attendants in so many mundane disciplinary contexts onboard commercial airliners? Sir, turn that phone off immediately!

At this point Lane's only recourse is to hurl a hand-grenade (how he got it is another story, not important for our purposes here) back toward Economy section of the cabin, and duck. This rather takes care of the immediate zombie problem, but it doesn't bode well for the plane.

And here we are back at Nature, which arrives in pristine form around a stunningly spectacular plane crash:

This is something I have written about elsewhere, but it is as if to say, You want Nature? You got it! It's all around: in the mountains, the white barked aspens, the firs and pines, the heavy clouds—it's a ridiculously scenic vista, re-marked as it were as a 'scene' where Nature really resides. Human flight always comes crashing back to the ground. The wild landscape frames this disaster, and clears away something of a blank slate for the human subject qua survivor, in the singular form of Brad Pitt.***

The tree trunk in the foreground of this shot reminds us that here, amid the redundant wire tangles and calamitous wreckage, we're in the realm of Nature. This is where we can start fresh, back at ground zero. It is no wonder that the crash scene is precipitated by a sequence that wonderfully and uncannily calls to mind Edward Norton's own mid-air collision fantasy in Fight Club:

parallel plane crash fantasies in World War Z and Fight Club

These are fantasies of getting back to Nature, to real experience—in Thoreau's words, "Contact! Contact!" Yet if we really wanted this immediacy in the context of World War Z, we would need only allow ourselves to be bitten. The zombies aren't struggling against—or to get closer to—Nature. They are it. As are we. 

And here is the harsh critique of air travel: just when we thought we were farthest from Nature, nestled in our elaborate techno-cultural tubes of flight, we were in fact closer than ever to it. We can fly, but we cannot hide. Work that into your Nature lecture, Dr. Fassbach.


* It really doesn't look all that unfamiliar to other forms of life we know. For instance, Baz Luhrman's sick and gas-pumping "Wilson" (on the left, below) in The Great Gatsby adopts a similar posture and aura. And as in Elizabeth Bishop's poem "Filling Station," we discover an eccentric ecosystem thriving at this greasy juncture.

** You desire to LIVE "according to Nature"? Oh, you noble Stoics, what fraud of words! Imagine to yourselves a being like Nature, boundlessly extravagant, boundlessly indifferent, without purpose or consideration, without pity or justice, at once fruitful and barren and uncertain: imagine to yourselves INDIFFERENCE as a power—how COULD you live in accordance with such indifference? To live—is not that just endeavouring to be otherwise than this Nature? Is not living valuing, preferring, being unjust, being limited, endeavouring to be different? And granted that your imperative, "living according to Nature," means actually the same as "living according to life"—how could you do DIFFERENTLY? Why should you make a principle out of what you yourselves are, and must be? In reality, however, it is quite otherwise with you: while you pretend to read with rapture the canon of your law in Nature, you want something quite the contrary, you extraordinary stage-players and self-deluders! In your pride you wish to dictate your morals and ideals to Nature, to Nature herself, and to incorporate them therein; you insist that it shall be Nature "according to the Stoa," and would like everything to be made after your own image, as a vast, eternal glorification and generalism of Stoicism! With all your love for truth, you have forced yourselves so long, so persistently, and with such hypnotic rigidity to see Nature FALSELY, that is to say, Stoically, that you are no longer able to see it otherwise—and to crown all, some unfathomable superciliousness gives you the Bedlamite hope that BECAUSE you are able to tyrannize over yourselves—Stoicism is self-tyranny—Nature will also allow herself to be tyrannized over: is not the Stoic a PART of Nature?... But this is an old and everlasting story: what happened in old times with the Stoics still happens today, as soon as ever a philosophy begins to believe in itself. It always creates the world in its own image; it cannot do otherwise; philosophy is this tyrannical impulse itself, the most spiritual Will to Power, the will to "creation of the world," the will to the causa prima.  (trans. Helen Zimmern)

*** The nexus of Brad Pitt and crashing is a topic I take up at greater length in Deconstructing Brad Pitt.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Return To Your Seat

Have you ever found yourself standing in the airplane lavatory, perhaps looking at yourself in the hazy mirror, staged in the dim light, wondering how long you’ve been standing there, and how much longer you can get away with it before another passenger or a flight attendant knocks on the door? It’s a little pentagon of privacy in the otherwise public oval of the airplane; but you can't stay for long. 

There is something weirdly timeless about this space: once you go in and shut the stiff yet flimsy plastic door, everything else in the airplane sort of vanishes, muffled in some near distance. It is a place full of mystery, and suspense. 

There's the small sink with faucet of uncertain water pressure—is it going to shoot out with surprising force, or just dribble onto your fingers? Then there are the myriad signs, minimalist icons implying warnings and instructing things like DO NOT OPEN and DEPOSIT WASTE HERE. Red stripes of caution slash through simple humanoid forms. It is a tight space, yet over-brimming with communication. Have you ever been in the lavatory when the captain makes an announcement, and for once it sounds like the captain is speaking to you alone? Occasionally you'll be in there when the plane starts shaking and a calm icon illuminates with a ding, a placid command, return to your seat.

Then there is the small molded toilet, with its sketchy seat, the hinged and bouncing metal flap at the bottom of the bowl, and the vortex of “blue juice” sucking into the void. Do you sit or try to stay propped up, awkwardly hovering over the bowl? How clean is this place, anyway? On the plus side, the airlines are pretty good at cleaning the lavatories regularly and thoroughly (I know—I used to have this job). As germ-filled as the lavatory may feel when you are in it, it’s also likely that it is one of the cleanest un-homed bathrooms you’ll ever use. 

Once I entered a lavatory and was surprised to see the tiny sink filled with what at first looked like trash. When I looked closer, it was actually a rather careful arrangement of hand sanitizing wipes—the sink was inoperable, so a clever flight attendant had placed a bouquet of packaged hand wipes in the sink, and taped a note to the mirror instructing the passengers to use these instead of washing their hands. The lavatory became a place for creative problem solving: such industry! 

Outside, down the aisle, other passengers sit and stare at the red cartoon that denotes OCCUPIED. Who is in there, and why are they taking so long? But these two experiences of time are so different, inside and outside the lavatory. Outside, in a cramped seat, time drags on and it’s hard to focus on things. But in the lavatory time stands still, and everything is in focus. It’s a small windowless room where everything pops into distinction, and yet where everything becomes strange, too. Where are you, here? Who is that looking back at you in the mirror? Is it really you? 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Landscape Ecology

This past Friday I went canoeing with the Environment Program at Loyola, an excursion lead by my biology colleague David White.

We drove in vans west out of New Orleans, to where I55 heads north toward Memphis. On a narrow stretch of land and between Maurepas Swamp and Lake Pontchartrain, we pulled off the frontage road and loaded into twelve canoes. As we set out, we had to paddle under the elevated highway. This was a strange, fantastical experience: to be slipping through the shimmering calm water, past enormous concrete pilings as cars and trucks went hurtling by twenty or so feet above.

Making our way into Shell Bank Bayou, we paused to discuss the invasive Triadica sebifera (Chinese tallow or "popcorn" trees) that grow along the boggy edges of the water. David explained how they were imported as ornamental plants (they are in the same family as the seasonally available, flashy red poinsettia), and how their waxy seed casings serve as food for various bird species. The birds, having eaten the outer husks, let the seeds themselves drop all over—and over time, spreading these trees everywhere. Their seeds can lay dormant in the ground for up to seven years...waiting until a storm knocks down grown trees, allowing direct sunlight to hit the ground, whereupon the seeds finally germinate.

The water moved around us gently but steadily—it's still water, yet there are weird currents: you'd notice it when clumps of spinning water hyacinths would come barreling by, drawn somewhere into the bayou faster than the canoe. Deeper into the bayou, we came across the rusted metal structure of an old fishing camp—another reminder of the human presence that helped shape this landscape.

As night fell, we all formed a loose flotilla in a dense marshy area surrounded by cattails and cypress stands. David gave a brief talk on "landscape ecology," touching on the "idea of wilderness," crepuscular species, noise pollution, sensory overload, and how our bodies become more relaxed out here. It was really great: everyone quietly slapping and shooing away the mosquitoes that were suddenly swarming us, but still listening—relaxing. We could hear the shush of the highway in the distance, and the eerie hoot-hoots of owls as they swooped through the cypress trees.

What really stuck with me was David's mention of scale as a key landscape-ecological term, and it made me think about what we have been doing in my Literature & Environment courses this semester.

For instance, last week when we discussed Brenda Hillman's poem "Symmetry Breaking" (from Loose Sugar), we looked at how the lines shift scale as the air traveler speaker reflects on various parts of the cosmos that assert themselves as her plane cruises above the north American continent. The focus moves from the airplane meal in front of the speaker, the "chicken with / the flap of itself on top" and the "triangle of Cool Whip", to the vast landscape of Utah unfurling out the window, and even to the universe in some distant moment when it "said goodbye to evenness." The poem ponders the bizarrely workaday airline food and airport rituals while also assessing vast reaches of time and space—we are presented with overlapping and interpenetrating 'landscapes' that foreground different forms of life and non-life. We can't be too quick to deem which came 'first' or determine what is the more 'natural' here; instead, we are called on to consider closely the patterns of movement and behavior at different levels, from "cell division" to the "dinner roll."

During his talk about landscape ecology, David talked about certain places like the Grand Canyon, where the idea of wilderness is more palpable; but he said even when camping there, he recalled seeing the flashing lights of jets 30,000 feet above. I remember this experience too—being at the bottom of the canyon, lying next to the rumble of Hermit Rapids at night, and seeing the tiny blink blink blinks way above me. This is like an inverted version of Brenda Hillman's poem, with the riparian ecosystem in the foreground and the little interior world of the airliner far removed, but nevertheless weirdly present. These are some of the things that landscape ecology considers: the distances and gaps between things, and yet the connections and overlaps, where they exist—and how these can change over time. It's a way of thinking about processes on multiple scales, at once.

Heading home, we passed again beneath the towering strip of highway, and it was even more surreal in the pitch black of night—the aerial headlights and warped whooshes like some ongoing alien enterprise bisecting the bayou. Or maybe we were the aliens: David had told us that as we paddled back to the launch site we would be overwhelmed by the sounds of the highway, and he was right. It was hard to imagine that we'd soon be on a similar corridor, rushing back to New Orleans through the night.